KANSAS CITY, Mo. (WDRB) — Even the wackiest, most anonymous, juvenile message board poster could not have criticized Kentucky forward PJ Washington if Washington had decided to miss the Wildcats’ Midwest Regional semifinal against Houston Friday night.
The one Kentucky won, 62-58, but would likely have lost without Washington.
Washington has a terribly painful left foot, the result of a sprain he suffered nearly two weeks ago.
Hard cast. Walking boot. Around-the-clock treatment. Aquatic therapy. Medical specialists in several states.
All that stuff helped speed the healing process. But Washington’s foot still hurt Friday morning.
The Kentucky coaching staff learned that after Washington tried to participate in the Wildcats’ final practice but decided he was not ready.
“We didn’t have any intention of playing him until right before the game,” said UK associate head coach Kenny Payne.
When did the UK players know Washington would be able to participate?
“When he went in the game,” said forward Reid Travis.
“He wasn’t going to allow his team to lose,” Payne said. “Whatever play he needed to make, he made.
“He made sure his team won. When the game was headed in (Houston’s) direction, in the huddles, he handled the huddles … that’s a leader.”
For the next two hours, Washington did not play. Washington excelled, inspiring Kentucky into the Elite Eight past a formidable, gritty, 33-win Houston team.
Washington scored 16 points, two more than his average. He played solidly efficient basketball, making six of eight shots. His final two points came on the kind of rugged, contested post move that will make Washington a first-round NBA Draft pick in June.
Washington was not thinking about the first-round when he made that move. He was thinking about the fourth-round of the NCAA Tournament.
“To ever question (Washington putting his NBA future) over this team is crazy,” Payne said. “That’s not who he is. PJ Washington is a winning basketball player who is 100 percent about this team.”
With Kentucky trailing by three, after leading by 13, Washington took on a Houston defender on the left side of the lane. Watch the video. You won’t see a guy with a bad foot. You’ll see a guy who did not want his season to end.
Washington soared — and scored, cutting Houston’s advantage to 58-57.
Corey Davis, Houston’s top scorer, flashed through Kentucky’s defense while attacking the rim. His intent was to extend the Cougars’ lead. It appeared that Davis had a layup. Davis had nothing.
Washington soared higher than he had soared all night, swatting Davis’ drive away.
Washington’s foot was hurting. You can tell that my checking his rebound total. He had two, less than a third of his average. Washington didn’t have his usual lift getting off the court. He found the lift to block Davis’ shot.
Tyler Herro took it from there, making a three-point jumper and two free throws in the final 25 seconds to secure Kentucky’s spot against Auburn at 2:20 p.m. (EDT) Sunday in the Midwest Regional final at the Sprint Center.
“One guy has been excused from practice Saturday,” Payne said.
I wonder who.
“I took some pain pills before the game,” Washington said. “Kind of started hurting in the second half but I have to tough through it.
“Through the end of the game it was trying to cramp up. I’m definitely going back to get some treatment after this and try to get a good night’s sleep.”
Expect Washington to play Sunday, but understand that his availability is not guaranteed. He played nearly 26 minutes. The plan was for Washington to play 15-to-16.
He entered the game less than five minutes after it started — and scored in the first 35 seconds he was on the court.
Throughout the first half — and early in the second half — UK trainer Chris Simmons would remind the coaching staff to substitute Washington for a one- or two-minute rest after he had played for three-or-four minutes.
In for three or four. Out for one or two.
That was the plan.
Until Kentucky needed Washington as much as the Wildcats have needed him this season. Washington played 8 minutes and 51 seconds in the first half. He played played nearly 17 minutes in the second, including the final 11 minutes and 42 seconds.
“Whatever we did worked,” Payne said. “He gets to ice his foot for 24 hours. I don’t even want to think about playing that game without PJ Washington on the floor.
Washington was determined. But he was also honest. He said his foot hurt after the game. Said it several times, in fact.
“We don’t win the game today without him,” UK coach John Calipari said. “We don’t.”
They don’t. And now they’ll have to wait and learn if they have PJ Washington Sunday against Auburn. Remember: When Kentucky defeated Auburn, 80-53, in Rupp Arena Feb. 23, Washington scored 24 points, making five shots from distance.
“When PJ doesn’t play, we are a good team,” Payne said. “When PJ Washington plays we have the potential to be a great team that is still getting better.”
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